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North’s statement draws mixed reactions

While U.S., South hail end to tests, critics say it’s not denuclearization
Apr 23,2018
이미지뷰
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from left at the podium, presides over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Friday. Kim declared the North will stop all nuclear and missile tests and close down its underground nuclear test site at the meeting. [RODONG SINMUN]

North Korea’s announcement Friday that it will stop all nuclear and missile tests was welcomed by the South and the United States, but some critics say the statement didn’t actually indicate any interest in denuclearization from the recalcitrant state.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was quoted in a lengthy report released by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency Saturday as saying that no such tests were necessary anymore, “given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence.”

Kim said North Korea, starting immediately, will never use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless the country faces a nuclear provocation or threat.

The North will also “facilitate close contact and active dialogue” with neighboring countries and international society in order to guarantee the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula and the world by creating an “international environment favorable for socialist economic construction,” Kim said.

North Korea carried out 17 missile tests and a nuclear test last year. After an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on Nov. 29, the regime claimed it had “mastered” its nuclear development program, leading local pundits to believe it would spend 2018 focusing on rebuilding its economy.

In a shift from the two-track policy of pursuing economic growth and developing nuclear weapons he announced in 2013, Kim said Friday that his country would concentrate “all our efforts on socialist economic construction,” indicating that its resources would be redirected from its nuclear and missile programs to economic development.

The Blue House was quick to welcome Pyongyang’s statement, saying it “represents meaningful progress on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, for which the world has been longing.”

U.S. President Donald Trump also applauded Kim’s decision, tweeting on Saturday, “North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan also accepted Pyongyang’s latest overture, though not without caution.

“I want to welcome these positive moves, but I wonder if this will lead to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal, weapons of mass destruction and missiles.…I’d like to keep a close eye on the developments,” said Abe, according to Japan Times.

Some critics saw the North’s statement as indicating that it wants to be recognized by the international community as a responsible nuclear-armed state.

The absence of the phrase “denuclearization” from the statement has been seized on by North Korea skeptics as a show of its desire to keep the nuclear stockpiles it currently has and trade a freeze in nuclear weapons production for relief from economic sanctions.

“This is not a denuclearization statement,” said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, in an interview with U.S. media outlet Axios. “It is a statement that the DPRK can be a responsible nuclear weapons state,” he added, using an acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

The North’s latest message to the world has heightened the expectations for the inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim this Friday and Trump’s upcoming meeting with the young leader. President Moon Jae-in said Thursday that he believed Pyongyang intended to go after “complete denuclearization,” not the nuclear or inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) development freeze that Cha mentioned.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute specializing in North Korea affairs, says it is “inappropriate” to say that Pyongyang has no intention to denuclearize.

“There is inappropriate criticism [against the North] that its statement was not a denuclearization statement but a statement from a nuclear-armed state,” said Cheong, highlighting Cha’s response as a case in point.

“The reason why Victor Cha’s criticism is inappropriate is because the North’s declaration of denuclearization can only be made when there is a comprehensive agreement reached [at the final phase of talks] in which the U.S. and North Korea open up diplomatic ties, related nations replace an armistice [for the Korean War] with a peace treaty and the international community lifts sanctions in return for the North giving up its nuclear arsenal,” he said.

Cheong said that the North’s decision to stop ICBM tests was equivalent to giving up on developing its missiles entirely.

“In general, Korean and U.S. experts agree that the North has yet to master ICBM technology and therefore requires additional testing. Because of that, its decision to stop ICBM tests could be interpreted as its intention to give up on completing its ICBM technology,” he said.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]